• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


A new American dream?

Sometimes attitude change is more apparent than real.

July 10, 2014

One comment I'd expected to receive in response to recent posts regarding the American Dream is along the lines of "You're out of date.  That used to be the dream, but it isn't any more.  Young people are moving back into cities, driving less, consuming less stuff and more services, practicing and promoting urban agriculture, living more sustainably."  Instead, commenters noted how inconceivable it is to conduct quotidian life in any manner other than what's considered "normal".

Inconceivable.  [Insert your favorite Princess Bride reference here.]  I run into arguments which center on the inconceivability of any alternative to the way things are now whenever I present material that relates to the eminently predictable effects of current behaviors, and the inescapable implications of those effects (as they accumulate and accelerate over time) on current generations, future generations and the planet.  Made explicit, many opposing arguments boil down to one or another variation on Panglossianism -- the belief that everything's for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Left implicit (and less sardonic), what they really evince is resignation and a general lack of imagination.  (Although "lack" may be the wrong word there; perhaps "loss" is more descriptive.  Personally, I blame the primary education system (grades 1-3) for driving a lot of imagination out of a lot of small bodies.  I'm probably wrong about that, of course.)

An inability to imagine, desire, or work towards any social dynamic other than the ones we awaken to each morning is common and understandable.  I could argue (and have argued) that it didn't just happen -- it's been consciously promoted.  (For an interesting perspective on how and by whom, read between the lines of a 50-year-old article from McKinsey & Co. while thinking "bread and circuses" and keeping in mind subsequent changes in technology.)  But one of the challenges such an inability (or even a disinclination) creates is that it colors the meaning of results of lots of social research.

A case in point:  the Center for a New American Dream commissioned two surveys of public attitudes, trying to quantify what folks considered part of "the dream", and how well they thought it was being fulfilled.  The surveys were separated by a decade (2004 and 2014), and the Center's recent report focuses (predictably and understandably) on how attitudes and perceptions have changed during that time.

I've participated (randomly, I presume) in a couple of similar polling exercises, and one of the things I've noticed is that if I ask what is meant by a particular term in a survey question, I never get explicit clarification.  Usually, the response is some variant on "just go with your best understanding" -- not particularly helpful when my best understanding is that I don't understand.  Of course, what I end up doing is formulating a response to the question I think the poll-maker is most likely to have had in mind.  That is, I imagine a technocrat thoroughly imbued with 'conventional wisdom' and then try to project what such an individual would mean by asking such a question.  As a result, I never get (never give myself?) the opportunity to express any sort of outside-the-box (much less "what do you mean, 'box'?") reaction.

So in the Center's reports of its polling, I'm at least slightly encouraged by data indicating that people say that they value happiness, family, peace, fairness and compassion more highly than they believe the social  system does; that the way we live produces too much waste; and that we all ought to share more.  I'm tempted to be pleased by the fact that folks say that we need to live "in harmony with the environment" much more than we currently do.  It warms the cockles of my heart when pollsters identify "achieving an affluent or wealthy lifestyle" as over-valued. 

But I'm concerned that most of those responses are tacitly qualified by something like "so long as it doesn't mean my life will change in any appreciable way".  After all, few folks are going to proclaim to a total stranger that they're in favor of unhappiness, unfairness, dispassion, selfishness or the opposite of any other virtue on the level of motherhood.  Actions speak louder than words, and in roughly that same ten-year period (according to the World Bank) US real (factored for inflation) per-capita final consumption (end use) of goods and services went up about 8%.  Eight percent may not sound like a lot, but in a society that was already consuming some three times as much per person as the planet can support, it's highly significant at the .0001 level.

If colleges and universities are to be useful players in society's struggle to sustain itself, we need to find ways to move our graduates past the attitude of "so long as it doesn't change my life appreciably".  We need to start making the not-already-dominant conceivable.  We need to get serious about fulfilling our oft-proclaimed goal of developing critical thinkers.  We don't need to (and shouldn't) indoctrinate our students into any particular vision of what a sustainable society ought to look like, but we need to get them asking the right questions in the broadest possible context.  We need to expand (perhaps, restore) their ability to imagine and conceive. 

I wonder how many of our curricular offerings really set out to do that, much less achieve it.  I know that at my school, the proportion is pretty small.


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